COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

Leeds General Infirmary - constructed as Scott was also working at Ripon Cathedral.
Leeds General Infirmary - constructed as Scott was also working at Ripon Cathedral.

David takes a closer look at the career of Sir George Gilbert Scott, the architect who restored Ripon Cathedral who left a lasting legacy across the country.

The architect Sir George Gilbert Scott - the man who restored Ripon Cathedral between 1862 and 1872 - has often been mentioned in this column. But have we really been introduced? Who was this knighted (some still say ‘benighted’) architect, why was he working in Ripon, and what is his legacy?

He was born in Gawcott, a mile or so from Buckingham, on July 13 1811. His father Thomas was perpetual curate of Gawcott Church and Gilbert was the fourth of 13 children, of whom 10 survived. His mother Euphemia was related to the Gilberts of Antigua, where she was born. They claimed descent from the navigator Sir Humphrey Gilbert.

Most of the schooling that young Gilbert (as he was always known) received was with his father, and then with his uncle, Samuel King. He developed a love for architecture, and spent much of his time doing sketches of local churches. Taking his enthusiasm for architecture as a cue, his father eventually articled him to a minor architect, John Edmeston, in London.

There he met William Bonython Moffatt, with whom he soon set up an architectural practice. Scott and Moffatt became well known for their skill in building workhouses and asylums – though not Ripon’s, sadly. Scott did most of the architecture, and Moffatt was good at chatting to Boards of Guardians. They made a good living, but eventually Moffatt proved unreliable, and the partnership was dissolved.

Gilbert Scott continued to design minor works, including churches, but when he read the works of Pugin, the great advocate of Gothic architecture, he was transformed. ‘Pugin’s articles excited me almost to fury,’ Scott wrote. It was fury that he had so little understood what Gothic architecture really meant. ‘I was awakened from my slumbers by the thunder of Pugin’s writings.’ After that, he said, ‘I cared for nothing as regarded my art but the revival of Gothic architecture’.

In 1840 he designed the Martyr’s Memorial in Oxford, basing it on one of the medieval Eleanor Crosses - the one at Waltham Cross - which he had sketched as a youth. Once it was built, its fame was such that Scott never needed to advertise for work again.

Scott was a most diligent and hardworking man. He ran his office in Spring Gardens, just off Trafalgar Square, with the help of assistants and articled clerks, and soon had the largest architectural practice in the country.

He was sometimes so overworked that he is said to have once telegraphed to the office ‘I am in Manchester. Why?’

One of his most important and visible works is the St Pancras Hotel, built for the Midland Railway Company to herald its presence in London. The Hotel is in some ways a symbol of Scott’s architectural career; without the railways it would have been impossible.

He also designed, in a similar style, the Leeds General Infirmary, built between 1864 and 1867. As the Infirmary was being built, Scott was also working on Ripon Cathedral - no doubt his journeys from London would encompass at least these two projects, if not more.

Scott’s most recognised public structure is perhaps the Albert Memorial, completed in 1872. It was especially for the Memorial that Scott was knighted.

But his church work was the backbone of Scott’s career. There were many new churches, often built to serve growing populations in industrial towns, like his magnificent St George’s, Doncaster - now Doncaster Minster - and All Souls at Haley Hill in Halifax, of which Scott wrote, ‘It is, on the whole, my best church.’

Though Scott preferred to build from scratch, church restoration was his bread and butter, and he was always happy when some of the greatest cathedral plums fell into his lap. In the UK he restored at least half of all cathedrals, from Durham to Exeter, St Asaph to Canterbury. Scott was, for many Deans and Chapters, THE man for restoring their cathedral.

His work on Ripon Cathedral, and on many of our other cathedrals, was timely, preventing further deterioration of their fabric, and it is often through his eyes, or those of his contemporaries, that we tend to see our great churches today. As the Marquess of Ripon said when the appeal for Ripon Cathedral’s restoration was launched, ‘The Dean and Chapter . . . have taken a very wise course when they consulted Mr Scott’.

Yet even at the time of his death in 1878 the tide was turning. Critics like William Morris, who in 1877 founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings as a direct result of a proposed restoration of Tewkesbury Abbey by Scott, changed public opinion against what he saw as the ‘destructive’ restoration of buildings.

Eventually the taste for Victorian architecture ebbed away – and Scott’s reputation suffered more than that of most architects.

The Albert Memorial was threatened with demolition, and many of his works disappeared, like his Beckett’s Bank in Park Row in Leeds. Churches, too, were torn down, and few people had a good word to say for the man who had been at the forefront of his profession. Only in the last 30 years or so has Scott’s reputation recovered, and we can now appreciate that, while he was sometimes uninspired or heavy-handed, at his best he was a great architect and a sensitive restorer. Ripon, like many other cathedrals and churches, is fortunate to have had his hand in charge of the restoration of its cathedral.